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The darker side of life and death

Main image of Horror

Though the silent era boasted many now-lost versions of blood and thunder warhorses like Maria Marten, Sweeney Todd and The Face at the Window, early British cinema did not embrace the macabre with the enthusiasm of Hollywood or Berlin, despite the fact that solidly British authors like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson were already much-adapted. When sound came and the horror film emerged as a distinct genre, transplanted directors like James Whale and actors like Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill and Claude Rains ensured that even in America horror had a British accent.

Karloff was summoned home for The Ghoul (1933) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), while his Hungarian rival Bela Lugosi was lured to these shores for The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935) - an early Hammer film - and Dark Eyes of London (1939). These are British attempts to imitate an American genre formed by European creatives, but more distinctively homegrown was a run of brisk, lurid, endearing shockers starring veteran barnstormer Tod Slaughter, from definitive films of Maria Marten (1935), Sweeney Todd (1936) and The Face at the Window (1939) to wilder efforts like Crimes at the Dark House (1940) and the Burke-and-Hare derived The Greed of William Hart (1948).

A little more respectable, if as committed to terror, is Ealing's multi-authored Dead of Night (1945), a collection of ghost stories that influenced supernatural tales and omnibus pictures for decades. Previous British horror tended to go for the giggle and the grue, but Dead of Night - despite its comic golfing sequence - tried for fear, both supernatural and psychological, especially in the sequences that have Ralph Michael and Michael Redgrave overwhelmed by the evil influences of a haunted mirror and a ventriloquist's dummy.

The genre truly flowered in Britain thanks to the tiny independent, Hammer Films, who essayed some overlooked post-Dead of Night efforts like Room to Let (1949) among varied B product, then had a science fiction success with Val Guest's TV-derived mutating-astronaut picture The Quatermass Xperiment (1956). The studio produced sequels (Quatermass 2, 1958) and spin-offs (X the Unknown, 1958), but also switched styles for Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a lush colour gothic with Peter Cushing' s brisk Baron whipping up Christopher Lee's wounded animal creature. The team reunited for remakes of Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Mummy (1959). More remakes and variations, plus the inevitable sequels, followed, with Fisher sharing chores with the interesting likes of John Gilling (The Plague of the Zombies, 1964, The Reptile, 1964), Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire, 1964) and Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein, 1964, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, 1967). Fisher remained with the cycle for such superior efforts as Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), The Devil Rides Out (1967) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969).

Hammer's success prompted many flavours of imitation. A cycle of historic horrors (The Flesh and the Fiends, 1958, Jack the Ripper, 1959) harked back to Tod Slaughter, while a series of mutilation-obsessed modern thrillers (Horrors of the Black Museum, 1959, Circus of Horrors, 1960) climaxed with Michael Powell's astonishing Peeping Tom (1960). The whole breadth of British genre was invoked as Christopher Lee revived the character of Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes faced Jack the Ripper in A Study in Terror (1965) and alien invaders still came in Village of the Damned (1960) and Unearthly Stranger (1963). Freddie Francis's Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1964), from Amicus films, was the first of a run of Dead of Night-influenced anthology films, usually working Cushing and/or Lee into the casts.

The late 1960s and early '70s saw the arrval of a youthful wave of new directors, most notably the short-lived Michael Reeves (The Sorcerers, 1967, Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General, 1968) but also Michael Armstrong (Haunted House of Horror, 1968), Gordon Hessler (Scream and Scream Again, 1969), Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan's Claw, 1971), Peter Sykes (Demons of the Mind, 1972), Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter, 1973) and Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man, 1973). Though these creatives, often working with screenwriter Chris Wicking, shook up the creaky Hammer/Amicus formula, they tended to be passing through horror rather than intent on sticking with the genre. Nevertheless, these modish films - influenced by pop art, Hollywood action and European art cinema - are a distinctive bunch; the footprint of this style of cool chill can even be seen in the likes of Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1968), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) and Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance (1970).

Hammer brought more sex into the mix with Roy Ward Baker's The Vampire Lovers (1970), with Ingrid Pitt as an often-naked bisexual vampire pawing topless nymphets, and this led, a few sequels down the line, to tamely disreputable efforts like Virgin Witch (1972). The crossover of horror and sexploitation also yielded Pete Walker, whose nasty psycho-thrillers (House of Whipcord, Frightmare, both 1974) often have distinctive ideas and bizarrely committed performances. Hammer showed a level of entertaining desperation with the likes of Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973), attempts to mix their vampire expertise with youth thrills or kung fu, allowed Fisher and Cushing to bow out with the crotchety Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973) and came too late to the post-Exorcist party with To the Devil, a Daughter (1975).

British horror went into abeyance in the mid-70s, though such debatably British items as The Omen (1976), Alien (1979), The Shining (1980) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) maintained a high profile. In the 1980s, only Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987) had much of an impact, with a bare trickle of marginal efforts - Dream Demon (1988), Hardware (1989), Beyond Bedlam (1993), Mary Reilly (1996) - keeping the form ticking over until a post-millennial burst of activity reminded audiences that horror could be a major strand of British cinema: The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1999), The Hole (2001), The Bunker (2001), 28 days later ... (2002), My Little Eye (2002), Dog Soldiers (2002).

Kim Newman

Related Films and TV programmes

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The Carry On team take on Hammer in this spoof horror comedy

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Lurid horror about a deranged plastic surgeon

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Hugely imaginative exploration and reinterpretation of fairytale myths

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Breakthrough horror that made stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

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Some mysterious deaths seem to be linked to an insurance company

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Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Hammer's sex-change update of the famous Stevenson story

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Unofficial but surprisingly faithful version of the Jekyll and Hyde story

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Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)

Hammer horror in which zombies invade a Cornish village

Thumbnail image of Reptile, The (1966)Reptile, The (1966)

An English village falls prey to a mysterious predator

Thumbnail image of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

Early British horror about the legendary barber-cum-killer

Thumbnail image of Terror (1979)Terror (1979)

Low-budget but effective horror by cult director Norman J. Warren

Thumbnail image of Village of the Damned (1960)Village of the Damned (1960)

Chilling adaptation of John Wyndham's novel about mysterious alien children

Thumbnail image of Wicker Man, The (1973)Wicker Man, The (1973)

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